LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which oversees the region’s efforts to combat homelessness but has faced some questions over the speed and scope of its work, unveiled an operational strategy Feb. 18 that it says will mirror responses to natural disasters.
Heidi Marston, interim executive director of the authority, said the Housing Central Command is an effort to revamp how city, county and federal agencies work together and increase the speed and effectiveness of getting homeless people into available housing.
The command will use real-time data of the area’s permanent supportive housing availability as well as funding streams, available vacant units and how quickly managers are moving people into them, according to Marston.
The command is based on the crisis-response model developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to get people housed after a natural disaster.
“Getting everyone in the same room at the same time lets us see the inventory we can use to bring our neighbors home,” Marston said. “When we turn complex inter-agency interactions into face-to-face communications, we get more people into more homes quicker and with less red tape.”
Representatives from the Los Angeles County Development Authority, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, the mayor’s office, the County Department of Health Services and the County Department of Mental Health are all included in the Housing Central Command system.
Members have been meeting daily since the command was developed in December, Marston said, and the command is part of the vision and planned restructuring of the local homeless authority.
According to a statement issued by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, an average of 130 homeless people in Los Angeles move into housing every day — however, an average of 150 people become homeless daily.
“The homelessness crisis demands an emergency response, and moving the needle means being nimble, flexible and creative with our resources,” Garcetti said in the statement. “People experiencing homelessness need to be matched to solutions more quickly, and Housing Central Command will help us do that in a way that builds on the work already being coordinated out of our Unified Homelessness Response Center.”
After identifying lags in filling available units of permanent supportive housing, homeless authority officials said they consulted with experts at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with track records of successfully rehousing people after a natural disaster.
Through the Housing Central Command process, officials said they discovered $30 million of a $106.5 million grant from HUD to the Los Angeles Continuum of Care in 2017 had gone unspent within a calendar-year deadline.
That happened, officials said, because of low vacancy rates and higher market rates than public housing authorities could pay, along with “landlord bias” against tenants with mental disorders or a history of homelessness. Other problems arose from outdated, incompatible or complex systems, officials said.
The obstacles produced an average waiting period of 10 months from a person being matched to housing to signing a lease.
“It’s unacceptable to leave money on the table that has been allocated to ending homelessness,” Marston said. “The work of the [command] showed us how seemingly small obstacles added up to death by a thousand cuts. Through it, we can examine each problem, address it and get the people who are in our system into their new homes faster.”
Staff of the Homeless Services Authority will soon be located at local housing authorities, where they can shepherd and troubleshoot applications. The Housing Central Command will first be tested downtown and in East Los Angeles later this week, officials said.
A housing vacancy website will be rolled out in March to establish inventory awareness.
Earlier this month, the county Board of Supervisors called for a re-evaluation of the structure of the Homeless Services Authority’s operation. Some board members expressed concerns that the authority was focused too much on the city of Los Angeles instead of taking a countywide perspective, or that it was not fully equipped to respond to the exponential growth of the homelessness problem.
Marston’s presentation to the Board of Supervisors Feb. 18 was well-received, but underlined another challenge — finding permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans.
Marston was joined by Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.
Guthrie said 4,600 units had been authorized for supportive housing for veterans in the fourth quarter of 2018, but his agency had only been able to use 68% of the allotted federal dollars.
“We can’t house people if we don’t get referrals from the V.A.,” Guthrie told the board.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been “way behind” in providing referrals across the country, despite a focus on fixing the problem, Guthrie said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger called the underutilization “embarrassing.” She and other members of the board suggested that they could help move the ball forward with federal officials.
Veterans must be deemed eligible for federal benefits before referrals for housing can be made, and Barger suggested that perhaps the county could do some of that screening itself.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the board could also work on changing statutes that regulate the administration of and eligibility for benefits.
Wave Wire Services